The positions are critical to ensure ethical, effective operations at a time when agencies are disbursing billions of dollars in pandemic relief.
As President Biden continues to fill out key positions in his administration, there is another category of nominees experts hope the new president will soon take up: inspectors general. There are currently over a dozen IG positions with acting heads and no nominees yet.
The Biden administration does not face a new challenge. Some of the current vacancies date to the Obama administration—one opening has remained unfilled since June 2014. But the current situation is unique in that Biden’s opportunity to fill these jobs follows years of extreme turbulence in the IG community. Former President Trump openly disparaged IGs whose findings contradicted statements of administration officials, and he removed a number of high-profile IGs without cause, including the State Department and Intelligence Community IGs.
“It's a shame that, two months into President Biden's term, there are still so many inspector general vacancies and so few nominees to fill those roles,” said Caitlin MacNeal, communications manager for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “Inspectors general are crucial to an ethical, effective federal government, as Congress and the public rely on them to investigate and expose waste and misconduct.”
The offices need permanent heads because acting IGs “are often less likely to hire additional necessary staff and take on controversial investigations,” she added.
“This is a perennial problem,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He attributes the vacancies and lack of urgency in filling them to higher priorities in any given administration, not necessarily to hostility for the IG role itself. Also, “the Senate is literally overwhelmed,” which is part of a “bigger systematic issue” that could be addressed by reducing the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation, he said.
While acting officials can be good leaders, “I do think that having confirmed leaders in place is fundamental to enabling the organizations to work at their best,” he said. “At the end of the day, the IG system is solid and the Biden administration has an opportunity to reinforce the positives and to return to norms where IGs are really seen as above the fray and nonpartisan actors.”
A survey by the Government Accountability Office published in March 2018 found that among nine acting IGs and a random sample of IG staff working under acting IGs, both groups “indicated that having acting IGs generally did not impact the OIGs’ ability to carry out their duties and responsibilities.” However, “four of the nine acting IGs and about 36% of OIG employees responded that an acting IG position had a negative impact on employee morale.” Also, “while the majority of permanent IGs who responded did not think that acting IGs are inherently less independent, they did indicate by a similar majority that an acting IG is less independent in appearance.”
In its 2020 transition handbook issued in December, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency said while IGs may not be the first positions a new administration looks to fill, it is important they do so “expeditiously” because “although acting IGs have performed admirably in many cases, a confirmed IG is in a much better position to effectively fulfill the responsibilities of the office.”
Mark Greenblatt, Interior IG who is the vice chair of CIGIE, told Government Executive the council takes its statutory role in providing recommendations on appointing IGs “very seriously.”
“It’s not only about the administration nominating candidates, it's also crucial that the Senate act on those nominations,” he added. There are acting officials in “some of the most high-risk agencies in the federal government, particularly right now,” such as the Heath and Human Services and Treasury departments, at a time when the federal government is spending trillions of dollars to address the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Greenblatt also noted that CIGIE's legislative priorities for the 117th Congress include two recommendations for reform: to narrow the scope of who can become an acting IG; and to require notification to Congress when an IG is placed on either paid or unpaid non-duty status.
“Taxpayers should be really dismayed that these vacancies persisted across administrations,” said Nan Swift, resident fellow for the governance program at the R Street Institute. “I hope that the Biden administration will prioritize these roles because it pays off big time for taxpayers when oversight is happening and when it is professional and competent.”
Administrations of both political parties have not prioritized IGs, she said. Undernder the Trump administration, “the role of the IG seemed to became so politicized,” she said, while during the Obama administration, a group of IGs became so frustrated with agencies’ lack of cooperation during investigations they wrote to Congress to complain about the impact on oversight.
Professors Kathryn Newcomer and Charles Johnson wrote in their book, U.S. Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times, that from 1978 to 2016, “presidential delays in nominating new IGs account for more of the vacancy duration than does senatorial delay in confirming them once nominated.” They observed it’s “clear that IGs are different from other classes of appointments that have consistent, powerful advocates outside the administration to push for swift nomination and confirmation.”
Despite the lack of action so far, Biden and many of his top officials have expressed support for transparency and oversight, especially amid the historic spending during the pandemic.
“Reducing waste, fraud and abuse and preventing it is certainly a priority for the president,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during the briefing on Thursday, in reference to the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package Biden just signed. “He’s already taken steps to address in the last 50 days and certainly when he was overseeing the Recovery Act” in 2009, so “I’m certain that as we look to implementation that will continue to be a focus of his.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the lag in nominating IGs.
Protecting IG Independence
Katelyn Schultz, press secretary for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a long-time champion of oversight and IGs, said, “President Biden should make it a priority to name well qualified folks to these posts.” Grassley, along with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Gary Peters, D-Mich., re-introduced legislation on March 4 that would increase protections for IGs, such as requiring administrations to give a “substantive rationale, including detailed and case-specific reasons” before removing an IG.
Current IGs nominated by Trump, such as Brian Miller, the special pandemic IG, and Eric Soskin, Transportation IG, have caused concern among Democratic lawmakers and watchdog groups. As such, they present Biden with a “dilemma” about whether or not to keep them, as The New York Times reported last month. While some believe the IGs should be removed, should Biden do so he risks normalizing the kind of executive interference in watchdog affairs that characterized the Trump administration.
Miller served for nearly a decade as General Services Administration IG and held senior positions at the Justice Department before taking a position in the White House Counsel’s office under Trump in 2018. Trump nominated Miller for the new pandemic IG position after first objecting to the creation of such a position upon signing the CARES Act and before he removed the highly respected acting Pentagon IG Glenn Fine from his job, thus stripping Fine of his ability to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, also established in the CARES Act.
At the Transportation Department, perceptions of the IG’s independence are also mixed. Eric Soskin was confirmed for the IG post in December, after Trump lost the presidential election. His confirmation was promoted by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, husband of then Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. But a report published last week raised concerns about the timing of that confirmation. It showed that as McConnell was pushing Soskin’s confirmation the Justice Department was reviewing a referral from the DOT IG’s office that found evidence Chao had used her position to benefit her family’s business. Justice declined to pursue it. Danielle Brian, POGO executive director, questioned the timing of McConnell’s actions in a tweet: “Perhaps it has something to do with the allegation of wrongdoing that office is reportedly handling against his wife, the Sec of Transportation?”
Despite concerns about Miller and Soskin, there’s pressure on Biden to respect the institution of inspectors general and resist the temptation to remove them.
“If Biden refrains from firing Senate-confirmed, but disfavored inspectors general, that will buck up the norm of independence,” Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor who co-wrote a book about post-Trump government reforms and served as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel during the W. Bush administration, told the Times. “The ostensible norm is not an actual norm if it doesn’t constrain the president in painful ways.”